Trick-or-Treat Safety: The Evidence

In 1982, after seven people in Chicago died of Tylenol that had been tampered with cyanide; my neighbors stopped handing out homemade candy apples and popcorn balls and went to all store-bought, prepackaged candy. This has always seemed an odd response to me since the Tylenol that had been tampered with had been purchased that way from stores. However, urban myths abound about poisoned candy and razor blades hidden in apples on Halloween. Since the Tylenol murders, instead of trick-or-treating in the neighborhood, lots of families choose to go to the mall or the parking lot of their local church. Hospitals have offered to X-ray candy for free and many states have adopted laws that ban sexual offenders from participating in trick-or-treating.   

Poisoned Halloween Candy

Joel Best, a Professor of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Delaware, did a thorough investigation into all claims regarding poisoned or otherwise tampered with Halloween candy going back to 1959. In all that time, there has been one death of one child from poisoned Halloween candy but it was not candy received from a neighbor through trick-or-treating. In 1974 Ronald Clark O’Bryan gave his son pixie sticks that he had laced heavily with cyanide so that he could collect on his son’s life insurance policy. Mr. O’Bryan was convicted and executed for murdering his son.

Needles and Razor Blades in Halloween Candy

According to and Dr. Best, needles have been found in Halloween candy about 80 times since 1959. Most have been hoaxes or practical jokes between friends. About ten incidents resulted in minor injuries and one woman had to get stitches. There is one documented case, in 2000, of a man who put needles in Snickers bars and handed them out to children on Halloween. One child hurt his tongue but did not require medical attention.

Child Abduction and Abuse

A thorough examination of crime report data from 1997 to 2005 revealed there is no change in the number of children abducted or abused on Halloween. Furthermore, law enforcement officials noted that laws and other precautions taken to prevent participation in Halloween activities by sexual offenders were not made in response to actual attacks on Halloween. This study was published in Sex Abuse: a journal of research and treatment. 2009, September 21(3):363-74.

Traffic and Glow Sticks

There are some genuine risks associated with trick-or-treating on Halloween.  According to the CDC, kids are four times as likely to be hit by a car on October 31. And a study conducted with the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System (NJPIES) Poison Control Hotline revealed that the highest number of calls related to glow product (glow sticks) exposure to children occurred on Halloween.

Stay Safe

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) offers great tips on how to stay safe on Halloween

  • Attach reflective tape to costumes
  • Go trick-or-treating with a group or an adult
  • Stay on sidewalks and look both ways before crossing the street
  • Drive carefully

Have a Happy and Safe Halloween!